Review of ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’ by Paul Theroux

The title should have been The Great Railway Bore. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. In fairness, this book was first published in 1975 and was probably edgy for a travel narrative at the time. I did like the first half or so, but it rapidly went ‘off the rails’ as the author became increasingly depressed and irritable, which anyone would do if they spent 4 months on a variety of railways with little sightseeing.

Each of the 30 chapters covers a rail journey (sometimes including boat or plane where necessary). Some examples are: ‘The Mandalay Express’, ‘The Saigon-Bien Hoa Passenger Train’, ‘The Delhi Mail from Jaipur’, ‘The Khyber Pass Local’. There’s a map which shows the epic route taken, down through France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan (that was by bus, in the absence of railways), to Pakistan, India, Ceylon, Burma and Vietnam, before heading home via Japan, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

I think the most notable thing about this book is that the author voluntarily travelled around Vietnam during the war. Women actually tried to give him the half-American babies which resulted from the forces being stationed there and he marvels at seeing blonde blue-eyed Vietnamese children.

The content of the book is mostly gritty and sordid. Poverty, sewage, corruption everywhere. In Asia, he is constantly offered girls, or men are talking about girls, or about girls they drunkenly slept with who turned out to be boys. There is very much a male gaze, which makes uncomfortable reading. The author seems to divide women into two categories, ‘fat’ or ‘pretty’. In a way that would be unfashionable now, he casually describes racial features. He also has an aversion to Australians, Afghans, Germans… come to think of it, he doesn’t like anyone that much.

It’s definitely a book to make you glad you stayed at home.

This edition published by Penguin, no date.

2 thoughts on “Review of ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’ by Paul Theroux”

  1. I read this in the early 80s and really enjoyed it. I’ve since read four other of his travel books. I enjoy them, even when he does get grumpy and depressed!

    1. I don’t mind grumpy and depressed writing, it was more the book’s attitude towards women and race that I didn’t like – I would still be open to reading another of his though.

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